Academic journal article Human Factors

Establishing the Boundaries of a Paradigm for Decision-Making Research

Academic journal article Human Factors

Establishing the Boundaries of a Paradigm for Decision-Making Research

Article excerpt


Several modern trends dictate that scientists and practitioners in the area of decision-making research make significant headway in understanding, developing, training, and supporting effective decision making. These trends include advancing sophistication and complexity of decision environments and the increasing cost of decision-making errors. Fortunately, a growing number of researchers are beginning to recognize the need to study decision making in a manner that enhances their ability to apply results to improve human decision-making systems (Cannon-Bowers, Salas, & Grossman, 1991).

Although less than a decade ago the topic of decision making in complex environments was hardly one that serious researchers would endeavor to study, today the need to study decision making in its more natural state is more evident than ever. As Norman (1993) and others have discussed, people are facing ever more cognitively demanding tasks at work and at play. Furthermore, the consequences of poor or ineffective performance are getting more costly - in terms of both money and loss of life. Aviation accidents, military mishaps, and industrial incidents are often caused by human error (Cook & Woods, in press), and these events can have catastrophic consequences.

Given the importance of decision-making research to real-world problems, our purpose in this article is to provide a brief accounting of recent trends in this area and to raise a number of issues that will contribute to its future. To accomplish these goals, we first describe what we believe is a paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1962) in decision-making research from a "classical" to "naturalistic" perspective because it has an impact on how the field might advance. We then examine the nature of the naturalistic decision-making (NDM) perspective and its strengths and limitations as a guiding tradition in the future of decision-making research.

From this discussion we raise a number of questions and issues related to naturalistic decision making - issues that we believe must be addressed in order to ensure that our new-found enthusiasm about the study of real-world decision making does not limit our thinking in much the same way that classical decision theories limited earlier study. Finally, we discuss briefly the implications of a paradigm shift in decision-making research and of refining our conception of naturalistic decision making. In the final section we focus on three areas: theoretical underpinnings, methods of study, and application of findings. Our intention is to offer a direction for future decision-making research and to provoke thinking and dialogue in this crucial area.


In recent years the term paradigm shift has been used so often - particularly in management circles - that it has become a cliche. This is unfortunate because the concept of a paradigm shift, as initially described by Thomas Kuhn (1962), offers a powerful description of how belief systems change. Moreover, we believe that the concept of a paradigm shift, and more generally a "scientific revolution," are relevant to the recent history of decision-making research (Cohen, 1993a, and Howell, in press, noted this as well). Before explaining how these notions apply to decision making, we first describe, in the following sections, what Kuhn (1962) meant by a scientific revolution and, subsequently, a paradigm shift.

Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) led to a fundamental change in the way researchers view the scientific method and, ultimately, their view of progress in science. Through a critical review of history in several areas of scientific study, Kuhn refuted the notion that science is a steady, cumulative process that advances toward ultimate truth. Instead, he depicted science as a haphazard process of systematic progress periodically but persistently interrupted by violent revolutions and lateral rather than incremental progress. …

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